Death Fat on My Mind

by Shaker TheLadyEve

In the past year there have been several studies covering the alleged connection between body fat and dementia. Melissa and Quixote covered the implications and scientific aspects of the some of this research last year. I read Olivia Judson's April 20th opinion article "Brain Damage" in the New York Times half-heartedly hoping that it would call into question some of the assumptions that have been made about the alleged connection between body fat and dementia. How predictably wrong I was!

Dr. Judson is an evolutionary biologist who earned her doctorate from Oxford and has published the unfortunately titled book "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex." Okay, I have not read her whole book, so I can't really critique it—but the first chapter is titled "Let Slip The Whores of War!" and it repeatedly refers to the "battle of the sexes" with regards to evolution. So that provides a bit of context to frame where she's coming from.

The piece is correctly labeled as opinion, as it's riddled with bias, judgment and terminally cute bon mots about Deathfat; yet it reads like a faux-rational attempt at a science article:
FTO, as the gene is known, appears to play a role in both body weight and brain function. This gene comes in different versions; one version — let's call it "troublesome"— appears to predispose people to obesity. Individuals with two copies of the troublesome version tend to be fatter than those with only one copy of it, who in turn tend to be fatter than those with two copies of the "regular" version.
Dr. Judson's narrative tone—let's call it "annoying"—is similar to so many of the editorials, essays and interviews about the alleged "problems" posed by fat. She comes off as smug, someone who has never been discriminated against based on her size and, what's more, someone who is proud to have never been counted as such. She sets up the predictable polar relationship between "regular," and "troublesome," or, if you prefer, "normal" and "other." If you do not fit into the "regular" category, then you are an inconvenience to all the "normal" people. And what should you do if you're an inconvenience? Why, starve yourself and get a gastric bypass, of course!
The possibility that obesity today will lead to higher rates of dementia in the future is, therefore, deeply alarming. The obvious question is: can obesity-associated brain damage be reversed? No one knows the answer, but I am hopeful that it can. Those two old friends, a healthful diet and plenty of exercise, have repeatedly been shown to protect the brain. Foods like oily fishes and blueberries have been shown to stimulate the growth of new neurons, for example. Moreover, one study found that dieting reversed some of the changes to brain structure found among the obese. Which suggests an interesting study. The most effective — and radical — treatment for obesity is bariatric surgery, whereby the stomach is made much smaller or bypassed altogether. Do people who have taken this option show a reversal, or at least a slowing, of brain atrophy?
Lecturing about diet and exercise? Check. Jumping to conclusions about causality without supportive data? Check. Use of unbearably moral language? Check. There are many individuals in the U.S. who have been diagnosed with various forms of dementia. The U.S. also has impossibly high body standards, a proliferation of fad diets, and rising eating disorder rates. Advising people to go on diets and lose weight to reverse brain atrophy is beyond irresponsible. And suggesting that dangerous surgery can slow or reverse brain atrophy is downright reprehensible.

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